Endogenous analgesia, dependence, and latent pain sensitization

Bradley K. Taylor, Gregory Corder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Endogenous activation of μ-opioid receptors (MORs) provides relief from acute pain. Recent studies have established that tissue inflammation produces latent pain sensitization (LS) that is masked by spinal MOR signaling for months, even after complete recovery from injury and re-establishment of normal pain thresholds. Disruption with MOR inverse agonists reinstates pain and precipitates cellular, somatic, and aversive signs of physical withdrawal; this phenomenon requires N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor-mediated activation of calcium-sensitive adenylyl cyclase type 1 (AC1). In this review, we present a new conceptual model of the transition from acute to chronic pain, based on the delicate balance between LS and endogenous analgesia that develops after painful tissue injury. First, injury activates pain pathways. Second, the spinal cord establishes MOR constitutive activity (MORCA) as it attempts to control pain. Third, over time, the body becomes dependent on MORCA, which paradoxically sensitizes pain pathways. Stress or injury escalates opposing inhibitory and excitatory influences on nociceptive processing as a pathological consequence of increased endogenous opioid tone. Pain begets MORCA begets pain vulnerability in a vicious cycle. The final result is a silent insidious state characterized by the escalation of two opposing excitatory and inhibitory influences on pain transmission: LS mediated by AC1 (which maintains the accelerator) and pain inhibition mediated by MORCA (which maintains the brake). This raises the prospect that opposing homeostatic interactions between MORCA analgesia and latent NMDAR–AC1-mediated pain sensitization creates a lasting vulnerability to develop chronic pain. Thus, chronic pain syndromes may result from a failure in constitutive signaling of spinalMORs and a loss of endogenous analgesic control. An overarching long-term therapeutic goal of future research is to alleviate chronic pain by either (a) facilitating endogenous opioid analgesia, thus restricting LS within a state of remission, or (b) extinguishing LS altogether.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)283-325
Number of pages43
JournalCurrent Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences
StatePublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014.


  • Addiction
  • Adenylyl cyclase
  • Analgesia
  • Central sensitization
  • Constitutive activity
  • Dependence
  • Latent sensitization
  • NMDA receptor
  • Opioid
  • Pain
  • Postoperative pain
  • Stress


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